The First 25 Years
by Elder Mike Strevel (2004)
We undertake to present a short history of our church so that our posterity might have some understanding of the sweet journey we have had in the service of God these first twenty-five years of our existence. We say, “sweet,” not because there have been no trials or difficulties, but because the word characterizes the journey. God has been very gracious and merciful to us, and we wish this history to ascribe to Him all the honor and glory for what He has done.
The church was formally constituted on Saturday July14, 1979, but much groundwork had been laid by Elder Hassell Wallis before that date. In 1977 Bro. Wallis began to hold Bible studies in his home one night a week for those whom he found willing to rise above the mediocre religion of the day. Bro. Wallis had resigned the pastoral care of Pine Hill Primitive Baptist Church and had accepted the pastoral care of Wheeler Primitive Baptist Church in Wheeler, Mississippi. However, his heart was to start a church in Ripley. He met with a small group consisting of Wanda Carr, Nell Wallis(Bro. Wallis’ daughter-in-law), Billie Rowland(his sister), Gertrue Wallis(his wife), Joy Nutt, and Robert Green(who lived in Memphis, TN, but drove down to Ripley every week for these Bible studies). Elder James Allen Rushing also attended the studies with some regularity. I was pastor of Paris Primitive Baptist Church in Paris, Arkansas, but my wife and I closely followed the studies of this group through my mother-in-law, Joy Nutt. We also attended occasionally when we would come home for visits. Bro. Wallis has a keen desire for an understanding of not just what a passage of Scripture said, but how one could actually make this a part of his life.
In April of 1979 I met with Bro. Wallis, and he fully shared his vision for a church in Ripley and asked me if I would consider coming to assist him in this work. I had resigned the pastoral care of the Paris church and was praying for God’s direction for my life and ministry. After much prayer, I told him that I would move to Ripley and help in this work. I was teaching in the public school at Magazine, Arkansas, so after fulfilling my contract in May, at twenty-seven years of age, I moved to Ripley.
Bro. Wallis found a piece of property on Cooper Street in Ripley which had a house and a 30’x32′ block building along with two acres of land. I purchased the house, and the Bible study group purchased the block building and the land.The block building was converted into a meeting place, and we held our first meeting at our present location the first Sunday in June.
On July 14 the church was formally constituted with Elders Hassell Wallis, Zack Guess(pastor of Grace Chapel Primitive Baptist Church in Memphis, TN), Bobby Poe(pastor of New Prospect Primitive Baptist Church in New Albany, MS), Jimmy Fulmer, James Allen Rushing(pastor of Greenfield Primitive Baptist Church in Greenfield, TN), Bill Lee(pastor of Pine Hill Primitive Baptist Church)and myself, along with deacons Claude Ewing(from Grace Chapel), Will Ed Norton(from Pine Hill), and Forrest Miller( from Wheeler Church) acting as the presbytery. The church was constituted with twenty-five members, but only fourteen were found faithfully in attendance in six months. These were:
- Bro. Wallis and his wife, Gertrue
- Nell Wallis and her children Scott, Micki, and Paul
- Sharon McAlister(Kathy’s sister) and her children Robin, Regina, and Rebecca
- Wanda Carr and her daughter Kelly
- Joy Nutt
- Paul and Billie Rowland
- Ida Shelton
- Myrtle Street
- Lewis Bryant
- Robert Green
- Mike and Kathy Strevel and their children Jacob, Anna, and Joseph.
So, with these fourteen adults and ten children(all under the age of ten) we began the journey of keeping house for God (as Bro. Wallis as wont to say).
It would be a most difficult task to pinpoint specific things about three years of meeting thus. Bro. Wallis as constantly having us memorize Scripture, and challenging us to a real and vital walk with God. Bro. Robert, who as an invaluable asset as a song leader and music teacher, was helping us with regular singing school type activities once a week, and I, without the burden of senior pastoral care just got to preach my heart out. Either Bro. Robert or I had weekly Bible studies with the children at the Wednesday night and Sunday morning services which we endeavored to incorporate in regular family worship in our homes. There was a prevailing sense of unity, love, and peace that absolutely permeated our meetings. During this time, the Lord added Elder Bobby and Sis. Ann Poe to our number.
One of my great desires was to start a Christian day school. Bro. Wallis caught the vision for giving our children a Christian education, and from the first we began to save money to start a school. I taught in the public school at Falkner, MS that first year, but in August of 1980 Ripley Christian School became a reality. We started with thirteen children from grades one through seven, and I taught the one room school with assistance from my dear wife, Kathy. We would set up folding chairs and push the school desks against the wall for church and do the opposite for school. This “school house shuffle” as I called it went on twice a week for two years. The school still functions today, although I serve as principal with only occasional teaching duties beyond morning devotion. We have been blessed with some excellent teachers through the years as God as provided for the school in every way. Sis. Rachel Beauchamp moved from Texas in 1982 to be our first teacher besides myself. A year later she married Bro. Robert Green, and they and their six children continue in faithful service to God in this church to this day. Over the years we have been blessed with the faithful service in the school as teachers of Robert Green, Lea Bennett, Sharon Corbitt, Avis Carter, Mary Hankins, Robin McAlister (our first graduate to teach in the school), Renee Jones, Jill Crom (who is now married to Elder Jimmy Barber), Wanda Carr, Kathy Strevel, Darlene Ewing, James Taylor, John Formsma (a graduate of RCS), Nell Hill, Teresa Hogan, Nathan Pitney, Terri Kennedy, Josie Schmidt, Jewel Lewis, Emery Sayre, and Abigail Sacran (a graduate of RCS). Dianne Formsma has also taught an excellent music program many of these years. When I became senior pastor in 1989, I began to work my way out of the actual teaching responsibilities. As an outreach to the community, the school was open to any Christian who wanted their children to come. Through this ministry several families were added to the church.
As both the church and the school began to grow, we saw a need for expanded facilities, so we were blessed to build our current sanctuary building in with additional classroom space in 1982. Our gym and fellowship building was built in 1985 completing our present facilities.
We could not speak of the building programs which God has blessed us to pursue without mentioning Elder Wiley Flanagan who pastored a church in Corinth, MS. Bro. Flanagan , in addition to his preaching and pastoral duties in life, was a building contractor. In his retirement years, he served the Lord by selfless devotion to helping God’s people however he could. Hecame and worked tirelessly the whole summer we were building the church building. The only pay he received besides a, “Well done thou good and faithful servant, “ was all the Dr. Pepper he could drink. After the building was complete, Bro. Flanagan came fro many Sunday nights and taught expositorily the book of Revelation. What a sweet devoted servant of God he was!
Over the years our church has been served by four elders and four deacons. Bro. Wallis served until his death in 2002, Elder Bobby Poe served for several years in the mid-eighties, Elder Jimmy Fulmer for about a year in the mid-eighties, and I until present. In addition Elder James Taylor apprenticed in the ministry for four years in the mid-ninties after which he was ordained to the full work of the gospel ministry and serves as a elder in Primitive Baptist Church at Aberdeen, MS. Bro. Robert Green was ordained as deacon in the early eighties, and Bro. Claude Ewing moved to Ripley and was chosen by the church to function in this office here. In the mid-ninties Bros. Reggie Jones and Tom Hill were ordained to the office of deacon by the church, and these four men serve in that office with distinction unto this day.
The church has been served admirably by Robert Green, Wanda Carr, John Formsma, and Trey McCoy as church clerk whose job it is to keep a record of the business proceedings of the church. Billie Rowland, Wanda Carr, Lisa Formsa, Josie Schimdt, and Terri Kennedy have served faithfully as church and school secretary whose job it is to keep financial records, handle correspondence, and perform general secretarial duties.
Although the church has not had a regular annual meeting, we have been blessed by the ministries of a number of our able ministers holding special meetings for us through the years including: W.F. Bell, Jerry Hunt, Sr., Jerry Hunt, Jr., Bill Lee, Wiley Flanagan, H.D. Fulmer, David Guttery, Zack Guess, Jimmy Barber, Mark Green, Thomas Mann, Steven Bloyd, Thomas Floyd, Lasserre Bradley, Mike Stewart, Jeff Haris, Herb Hatfield, David Pyles, Donnie Halgewachs, Gus Harter, Dwayne Schafer, Tim Cannon, Andrew Huffman, Justin Huffman, James Allen Rushing, Isaac Guess and a number of others who have come to preach for us on a Sunday afternoon or night.
One of the great desires of our church from the beginning concerns evangelism. Our church has been blessed to be involved in a number of evangelistic outreaches. Early on we began to publish articles I wrote about what we believe in the local newspaper asa well as for a number of years in the Tupelo Daily Journal and the Daily Corinthian in Corinth. These articles have been collected in a small book published by the church in May, 2000 and over four thousand copies have been distributed. In addition I preached daily on the local radio station for three or four years in the mid-eighties.
About this time, Elder Bobby Poe felt a call to do evangelistic work, and we sent him on a mission to the Caribbean. We have been involved with financial support to a mission in Haiti sponsored by a group of Primitive Baptist churches in Georgia for a number of years by this time. Bro. Bobby returned to give his attention to helping several weal and struggling churches in Texas, and never returned to active ministry here, settling in Memphis, where he lives today.
In 1989 I made my first evangelistic trip abroad to southern Mexico where I was blessed to minister the word of God for a week, but it was not until 2001 that our work abroad expanded. In 1994 Elder Jeff Harris, along with a number of Primitive Baptist elders, principally Gus Harter, began extensive labor in the Philippines. We supported those who went. Then in 2001 Elder Harris asked me if I would accompany him to begin an evangelistic work in Kenya in East Africa. I felt a call and burden to go; so, after a week of ministry in India, we went to Kenya. Since that time I have been back two other times to Kenya and Uganda. A solid church is thriving in Nairobi under the able leadership of Elder Walter Atsongo, and works are underway in Bungoma, Kenya and Uganda and Malawi. We continue to support these evangelistic labors, as well as the ones in India and the Philippines. God has been so good to allow us a small part in spreading the sweet gospel of the grace of God around the world.
Early in the church’s life Bro. Wallis (who was nearly sixty years old when the church began) began to experience serious and significant difficulties with his throat and went from a loud, booming voice to a raspy and sometimes barely audible voice. This was a great trial to him, but it added a dimension to his ministry that continued to greatly challenge and bless the congregation. He made several attempts to resign the senior pastoral role of the church in the eighties, but at the entreaties of myself and the church, he would reconsider. In 1989 he step down from his role at nearly seventy years of age, and the church voted for me to occupy that place, I have tried to serve, although with many imperfections, in that capacity since then. Bro. Wallis was a one-of-a-kind preacher who had a hunger for God and service to Him that continues to bless our congregation, even those who have come since his death, for his vision and spirit will live on in this church for many years. I suppose his vision is most aptly summed up in these words which became our marching orders. He wrote,
“My primary concern is to regain the spirit of first century Christianity – those vigorous years, a period before Christianity conformed itself to the image of this world; an era when believers were smitten with a vision of Christ which controlled their lives. I hunger to be a part of a little group who ache in their hearts to emerge in the midst of latter day religious confusion, self gratification, and pleasant complacency, to exhibit the faith and obedience set forth by the disciples of Christ in the first century. I desire to be a pioneer in pulling away from a sleepy-time religious atmosphere. I long to be gripped with the reality of God to the degree that all complacent assumption be washed away from my life.”
He never thought that he truly attained this lofty ideal – nor do we feel that we have attained. He left for us this great goal to which we will always aspire.
Very early on our assembly was touched by the hand of death with the passing of Sis. Sadie Biebers. She and her husband, Grady, had committed to be a part of this work, but she passed away before we actually constituted the church. Bro. Grady continued his membership here until his death in 1991. We constituted the church with three members who were in their eighties: Lewis Bryant, Myrtle Street, and Ida Shelton, all of whom went on to be with the Lord within five years of the church’s beginning. Aunt Bess Anderson (Bro. Wallis’ great aunt – but we all called her Aunt Bess) although a member of a small PB church which met once a month over on Dry Creek, was a faithful worshipper with us until her death in 1984. Paul Rowland passed from the scene of this life suddenly in 1981 and another dear brother, Delbert Beauchamp (Rachel Green’s father) likewise in 1992. Bob Formsma was killed in an auto accident in 1999, much to our great sadness.
Because of Bro. Wallis’ voice problems the majority of preaching and teaching after the first three or four years has fallen to me. I suppose I have preached over 2,000 times in these last twenty-five years. I have been blessed to preach and teach expositorily through most of the books of the New Testament and some of them twice. I have also done an Old Testament survey for two of the years.
We have been blessed to baptize eighty-two believers over the years in addition to the forty-four I have baptized in India and Africa. We are now blessed with nearly one hundred people in regular attendance from over thirty households, with a membership of over fifty.
These twenty-five years have been truly glorious in so many ways. As with any work there have been disappointments and difficulties, but God’s grace is always sufficient. I pray that the next twenty-five years, should the Lord tarry, will be filled with his Spirit to not only overcome the trials that I know shall come, but to continue in the vision of regaining the spirit of first century Christianity. Grant it, O God of mercy! Amen.